“We’re all slaves to our own fears,” said Haley Deiro, an art student at Truckee Meadows Community College. “That’s where prejudice starts.”
She drew that conclusion last year in a class called—nope, not “Race and Gender,” not “Principles of Sociology”—it was an art class, “Introduction to Printmaking.”
The students in that class collaborated with students from other departments—including English, political science and psychology—on a research project. A TMCC group called Faculty for Radical Empowerment and Enlightenment (FREE), brought them together. Since 2003, that group has assigned interdiciplinary projects on big-picture topics—among them censorship, evolution and democracy.
This time around, the topic was race.Art instructor Candace Garlock showed her students work by prominent artists who’ve addressed race in America and asked them to consider, “What is racism? How do we understand racism?”
“The hardest part was—they had to individualize it,” she said. “They had to figure out their own identity while they were researching. It was really, really hard.”
“I think it forced me to broaden my view,” Diero said. “I am a blond-haired, blue-eyed white woman. I’m not a minority. I don’t know how that would feel. I had to be more empathetic toward people who [experience discrimination].”
She accessed the idea of prejudice through her own experiences as a woman in her 20s contending with unreachable societal standards of beauty.
The research and soul-searching culminated in an exhibit of wood-block prints, which is on display in the hallway gallery at TMCC Meadowood Center. Each print is a graphically bold, black-and-white, poster-sized image, but that’s where the similarities stop and the nuances begin. The art students—predominantly white—devised their own visual languages to explore racism from different perspectives, whether they’d experienced it personally or not. Where Diero used doves to symbolize peace, for example, classmate Cassandra Bowers’ dove is crashed and bleeding.
Brandy Shaw considered the lies and omissions she and fellow Native Americans had been presented with as children. She drew a school desk scratched with epithets—“savage,” “STFU”—and a textbook titled “U.S. History Lies.” Angela Chan replaced the figures of a Chinese zodiac with images of Asian stereotypes—a mathematical formula, a small string instrument, an “A+” grade.
Garlock said that another student, David Radonski, “was very thoughtful. He’s a white, young male. In a way it’s almost like everyone’s prejudiced against him as a person. … You’re afraid to say anything because people will tag you as a racist.”
Alongside the prints in the exhibit are quotations the psychology students found and graphs made by math students to convey data on how things such as unemployment rates and arrest rates differ by race. The art students also wrote brief statements summarizing their insights, which come off as consistently professional and insightful.
In Deiro’s, she noted that, while discrimination can be regulated by law, prejudice itself is more deep-seated and less controllable.
As a group, these students show that a beginning art class can be an effective launch pad for some thoughful conversations on a complex topic.